Google will pay bug hunters up to $1.5m if they can hack its Titan M chip

Google increases bug bounty payouts because hacking Android is harder than it sounds.

Titan M

Image: Google

Google announced today that it is willing to dish out bug bounty cash rewards of up to $1.5 million if security researchers find and report bugs in the Android operating system that can also compromise its new Titan M security chip.

Launched last year, the Titan M chip is currenly part of Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 4 devices. It's a separate chip that's included in both phones and is dedicated solely to processing sensitive data and processes, like Verified Boot, on-device disk encryption, lock screen protections, secure transactions, and more.

Google says that if researchers manage to find "a full chain remote code execution exploit with persistence" that also compromises data protected by Titan M, they are willing to pay up to $1 million to the bug hunter who finds it.

If the exploit chain works against a preview version of the Android OS, the reward can go up to $1.5 million.

Google is willing to give the larger payout for a bug in a preview version because it allows the company to fix a bug before the Android OS is shipped to real-world devices.

The company's move comes after earlier this year, private companies that acquired Android exploits had increased payouts for Android bugs to $2.5 million, making it the first time Android bugs were worth more than iOS exploits on the private market.

At the time, Chaouki Bekrar, CEO of private bug acquisition program Zerodium, told ZDNet that his company had increased payouts because Android devices had become harder to hack due to the constant flow of security features that Google has added to the OS, along with contributions from Samsung.

Increased payouts across the board

Today's announcement comes as Google also increased bug bounty payouts across the board for the entire Android Vulnerability Rewards Program (VRP).

Until today, the maximum vulnerability payout was $200,000 for "a remote exploit chain leading to a TrustZone or Verified Boot compromise."

Since the Android VRP's launch in 2015, nobody has earned this top reward, and chances are low that no one will be able to hack Android running on a Titan M chip either.

Remote exploits -- that work without the attacker having physical access to a device -- are hard to create, as most attack vectors such as networking protocols have been plugged. Even if an attacker/researcher finds a remote attack, gaining boot persistence is another major hurdle that nobody has cracked.

Google: We've seen two complete full-chain RCEs

"We've seen two complete full-chain RCEs," a Google spokesperson told ZDNet in an interview yesterday, when we asked how common are vulnerability reports for remotely exploitable bugs.

"They both came from the same researcher. The majority of exploit chains submitted are local rather than remote," the Google spokesperson said.

The researcher is Guang Gong, of Alpha Lab, Qihoo 360 Technology Co. Ltd.. One of these two RCEs exploit chains has also helped Guang net the highest bug reward in 2019.

"This report detailed the first reported 1-click remote code execution exploit chain on the Pixel 3 device," Google said.

"Guang Gong was awarded $161,337 from the Android Security Rewards program and $40,000 by Chrome Rewards program for a total of $201,337," it added.

"The $201,337 combined reward is also the highest reward for a single exploit chain across all Google VRP programs."

$500,000 for data exfiltration and lockscreen bypasses

But besides introducing a $1.5 million reward for Titan M remote hacks and increasing bug bounties across the board, Google is also adding another bug reporting category.

The OS maker says it's willing to pay up to $500,000 for bug reports involving data exfiltration and lockscreen bypasses, depending on the bug's complexity.

Google's willingness to increase bug bounty payouts is certainly rooted in the company's confidence in the fact that Android is secure enough not to fall pray to easy hacks.

Either way, Google has not been shy and has been one of the companies with the largest payouts on the market. Since the Android VRP's launch in 2015, Google said it paid researchers up to $4.5 million, with $1.5 million being paid in the past 12 months alone.

"Over 100 participating researchers have received an average reward amount of over $3,800 per finding (46% increase from last year). On average, this means we paid out over $15,000 (20% increase from last year) per researcher," Google said.